Jukebox Homogenization

December 21, 2007 by

Picking songs on any jukebox is a challenge. Whether it’s digital, CD or 45, it is an art that’s part mix tape concoction and part DJing. There are obvious pitfalls — no one really needs to hear “Sweet Caroline” or “You Shook Me All Night Long” again, right? (Don’t get me started on “Free Bird.”) Can you impress your music-geek pals with the right mix of crowd-pleasing hits, obscure album tracks and blasts from left field? But of utmost importance is having a feel for the vibe at the location to keep from detonating a musical land mine. For example, just because a metal bar has Michael Jackson’s Thriller on it doesn’t mean that everybody wants to hear “PYT” at midnight on a Friday.

This is the danger of the digital jukebox: If every jukebox offers essentially infinite choices we run the risk of homogenizing the location music experience (or at least turning the place into some dork’s personal slumber party). Personally, I don’t want someone to be able to play Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” at my favorite watering hole, just like I don’t want to go eat at TGIFriday’s when I visit Chicago. Homogenization has contributed greatly to the death of over-the-air broadcast radio, pushing radio fans toward satellite and the Internet in search of variety and a bolder editorial voice. The same thing could happen to jukebox music.

The jukebox has traditionally made a statement about the location. Walking into a joint and finding a lot of Gretchen Wilson and Rascal Flatts on the jukebox is very different from finding the juke packed with show tunes. A good location is a community, and I think a jukebox that’s all things to all people runs counter to that notion. It’s nice to be able to play the Replacements and Wilco at any place I want, but when I find those bands waiting for me on the “record machine,” that place feels like home.

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